Teenagers as young as 13 all too often play an active role in feeding their families, many taking jobs when they can or selling their possessions to help raise money for food, researchers found in a detailed look at hunger among adolescents. In extreme cases, teens resorted to crime and sexual favors in exchange for nourishment.
Yet, according to the research, many cringed at the thought of using a local food bank.
“I will go without a meal if that’s the case,” said one girl in Chicago. “As long as my two young siblings is good, that’s all that really matters to me.”
The report, published Monday, is from the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group, and Feeding America, a national network of food banks. It is based on interviews of 193 teenagers in 20 focus groups across the country. Although child hunger continues to attract national support, the study seeks to pinpoint the struggles teenagers face when grappling with the issue.
Researchers asked teens how they cope with hunger in their communities and the barriers preventing them from accessing food assistance programs. They discovered many teens shrink from seeking help for fear of being stigmatized.
Susan Popkin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and co-author of the report, said teens engaging in risky behavior are often treated with disdain instead of being recognized as victims of sexual exploitation and the larger cycle of hunger.
“We need to be thinking about getting assistance to families with teens,” she said. “We need to stop thinking about teens as the problem and start helping them.”
The federal Department of Agriculture last week released the latest government estimate of household hunger, finding 13 million children and 29 million adults did not have sufficient food at some point in 2015. That is nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Caught between the throes of adolescence and the responsibility of feeding a household, teens turned to alternative strategies to earn cash for food, according to the new report on adolescents. In 13 of the 20 focus groups, participants mentioned “selling their body” or “sex for money” as a viable strategy. While participants in nearly every focus group preferred finding a job to make ends meet, high unemployment rates and school commitments make working more difficult, the teens noted.
Others simply go hungry so their siblings can eat.
Despite their ingenuity, a participant from Oregon said he doesn’t feel welcome in local food pantries. “People don’t trust teenagers,” he said. “People might not believe teens actually need the help.”
Food insecurity in the U.S. garnered mainstream national attention after the Great Recession left millions of families in financial straits. The USDA found the number of households facing hunger shot up to nearly 15 percent in 2008, a 3.5 percentage point increase from the year before. Nearly 17 million children went hungry in 2008.
Congress sought to tackle child hunger in 2010 by passing the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which provides additional federal funding to states for school meal programs and summer food assistance.
The law also created the community eligibility program, an initiative that enables schools serving in high-poverty areas to serve meals to every student for free without requiring each student to provide family income details to qualify.
Five years later, the law appears to have helped. In 2015, the rate of households facing food insecurity dipped below 14 percent for the first time since the economic downturn. More than 2 million children who faced food insecurity in 2014 obtained reliable access to food last year.
Despite the federal government’s success, teens in the report said existing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — federal food assistance —do not provide enough food for the month. A participant from rural North Carolina commented on how his peers’ actions change as food becomes scarce.
“By the end of the month you can tell by how the kids act. The kids might be aggravated,” he said. “You can tell, they’re depressed. You just know.”
The report also found teens don’t know many of the resources available to them. In addition to stigma, some participants perceived local food pantries as inaccessible and believed summer programs targeted small children, not adolescents.
Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., says several programs already in place are successfully engaging teens in meal assistance while maintaining discretion about individuals’ food insecurities.
The Grab ‘N’ Go breakfast initiative being used in many secondary schools around the country allows students to pick up a bag of breakfast foods in the morning and eat while in class, providing a meal for teens without the hassle of arriving early to school.
FitzSimons credits the 2010 federal law with providing a strong buffer against hunger in schools, but she still notes the gap in programming for teens.
“We do have like a solid nutritional safety net, but we do need to do more work to make sure kids are accessing the meals that are available through it,” FitzSimons said.
Participants in the Urban study echoed her sentiment. Pairing summer food assistance with enrichment programs like job training can reduce stigma and increase engagement, they told researchers. Teens also noted the need for more inclusiveness in food pantries and children’s programs.
The authors also suggested more research is needed to better understand how food insecurity affects adolescent development. According to a 2015 study, teens facing hunger typically exercise less and eat more poorly. A separate study published in 2012 discovered teens facing hunger are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
Emily Engelhard, managing director of research and evaluation at Feeding America, said more research now to address food insecurity can protect teens from suffering in the future.
“It’s much easier to solve hunger than to deal with the consequences of a person who suffered an impairment,” Engelhard said.